By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
This article is part of a series that encourages teachers to use works of art in the classroom to develop students’ taste for classical studies. After all, everybody is familiar with the proverb “a picture’s worth a thousand words”. Why not apply this to teaching the classics? With this goal in mind, I’ll be discussing one of my favorite paintings, “Thetis and Zeus” by the French artist Ingres.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born on August 29, 1780, in Montauban, France. He became one of the most revered neo-classical painters of his era. He is known for his mythological studies (“Jupiter and Thetis”, “Oedipus and the Sphinx”) as well as evocative nudes and portraiture work (“Madame Rivière”). He was also director of the École des Beaux-Arts and later of the French Academy in Rome.
Jupiter and Thetis
“Jupiter and Thetis” is currently displayed in the Musée Granet. Ingres finished this painting in 1811, but it remained in his studio until 1834, when the French government decided to buy it.
We see two well-known figures in this painting: Zeus, father of gods and men, and Thetis, sea-nymph and mother of the Greek hero Achilles. Ingres’ model for Zeus was Phidias’ statue of Zeus in Olympia, which has (sadly for art lovers) been lost for many centuries. Note the contrast between the two characters: Zeus has a hard muscular body while Thetis has sensuous, voluptuous curves. He sits firm and erect like a statue while she contorts her body like a snake.
There is an eagle perched next to Zeus, one of the symbols attributed to the supreme god of the Greeks, and also a smaller figure next to Thetis, which is propbably Zeus’ wife Hera, who was ever aware of her husband’s reputation as an unfaithful husband.
The painting is based on an episode from the first book of Homer’s Iliad. After Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel, Achilles decides that he doesn’t want to fight anymore and even begs his mother to convince Zeus to let the Trojans get the upper hand in the war for a while, in order to show the Greeks how much they need his help. Here is the passage in Homer’s Iliad in which Thetis petitions Zeus. The translation is by A.T. Murray:
Ζεῦ πάτερ εἴ ποτε δή σε μετ᾽ ἀθανάτοισιν ὄνησα
ἢ ἔπει ἢ ἔργῳ, τόδε μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
τίμησόν μοι υἱὸν ὃς ὠκυμορώτατος ἄλλων
ἔπλετ᾽: ἀτάρ μιν νῦν γε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
ἠτίμησεν: ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας.
Father Zeus, if ever amid the immortals I gave you aid by word or deed, grant me this prayer: do honor to my son, who is doomed to a speedy death beyond all other men; yet now Agamemnon, king of men, has dishonored him, for he has taken and keeps his prize by his own arrogant act. But honor him, Olympian Zeus, lord of counsel; and give might to the Trojans, until the Achaeans do honor to my son, and magnify him with recompense.
This beautiful painting has long been the delight of classicists all over the world and a great example of how classical art can be used to teach and inspire new generations of classicists and art lovers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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